Do brands need to do media relations any more?

Elon Musk, not the most media-friendly tech tycoon, has been rattling cages again. In late April he indicated that he had no plans to reverse last year’s closure of Tesla’s PR department. Musk has long had a difficult relationship with the press, now seemingly preferring to speak directly with his audiences. What need has he of gatekeepers, one might argue, when he has over 50 million Twitter followers.

Yet the Tesla boss’s decision should not be viewed in isolation. As odd as it appears, it highlights an important shift in the relationship between companies and the press. With the enormous reach of social media, brands are no longer as dependent as they used to be on journalists and editors. While few big firms would be inclined to follow in Musk’s footsteps and ditch traditional PR (essentially press relations), like him they know they can employ Twitter, Facebook and their other channels and platforms to get their message across pretty effectively.

PRs and press relations

Digital marketing and digital communications have become an increasingly important component of PR, significantly lessening the need for the intermediaries of old: the media. Moreover, these new tools are radically changing the dynamic between PRs and the press. The real power used to rest with the latter but new technology has allowed the former to exercise greater control over the message they wish to deliver on behalf of their clients.

The once preeminent position of the press has at the same time been undermined by the collapse in newspaper revenue that has turned so many of our iconic titles into mere shadows of their former selves. Forced to cuts costs and shorn of resources, they have become ever more reliant on PRs for stories as well as sponsored content, an important new income stream amid plunging circulations and advertising losses.

Brands as publishers

The clients PRs represent have also become more autonomous. Musk’s mobilisation of social media has helped to turn him into a powerful brand ambassador for Tesla. Other corporate giants have become publishers in their own right, producing all manner of content to generate audiences that many newspapers and even broadcasters would envy. Their content hubs engage with consumers and businesses in a way that builds trust and allegiance, almost obviating the need for the third-party endorsement so long provided by the press.

For sure, companies still yearn for tier-one media coverage. An op-ed in the Financial Times and several column inches of coverage in a decent mid-market tabloid are still regarded by PRs and their clients as excellent outcomes. The point is that success no longer hinges on impressive cuttings, especially since the effectiveness of digital content marketing, unlike press coverage, can be accurately measured, giving clients a very clear sense of the return on their investment.

No more gatekeepers

As a PR practitioner myself, I take no pleasure in newspapers’ declining importance in the marketing and communications mix. Yes, the press have been seen by some in my industry as irritating gatekeepers that get in the way of a good client story, but the authority media mentions convey is now more important than ever before.

With consumers and businesses faced with such a multitude of goods and services to choose from - many similar if not identical - the media’s role as guide and tribune is becoming invaluable. Brands are able to communicate with their audiences very well but they can never be impartial nor necessarily be counted upon to act in the best interest of their target audiences. A brand story might be compelling and informative but underlying it is a commercial imperative.

Striking a balance

I’m not saying that journalists’ once pivotal role in the PR dynamic needs to be restored, rather that we need to strike more of a balance between the press and digital marketing and communications. Media relations will remain an inextricable part of PR even as social media creates ever more innovative ways of delivering client messages to consumer and business audiences. Without it, I think there’s a risk of PRs and those they represent never facing real challenge. That can lead to complacency and laziness since the message is never properly tested or put under any real scrutiny.

Musk may feel he has no need of media relations right now given the relentless success of his company and his ever-growing Twitter following. But I think he turns his back on the press at his peril. His personal engagement with his audiences may serve his marketing needs for the time being, but ultimately it sets limits on his market potential and risks isolating him an echo chamber of his own making.

Written by Farzana Baduel, founder and CEO of agency Curzon PR